Bajrang Punia’s contests are always packed with emotions. Thrill, hope, despair and delight — all in six minutes. Expect the grappler to cover deficits, launch audacious attacks but also give away easy points. The knee injury Bajrang suffered before the Tokyo Olympics threatened to dull his sparkle, but the 28-year-old was back in his elements during the World Championships in Belgrade where he won bronze.
His fans were heartened to see Bajrang return to his attacking style when he twice overcame big point deficits in repechage. Against Armenian Vazgen Tevanyan, the 65kg wrestler fell 0-4 behind but found out a way to win with a 7-6 verdict. In the bronze medal bout against Sebastian Rivera of Puerto Rico, the Indian trailed 0-6 before closing out 11-9 in the nick of time.
Bajrang’s fourth World Championship medal — one silver and three bronze — in nine years underlines his consistency at the highest level. However, this one holds special significance as it came against a growing wave of criticism and doubts about his ability to perform at the top level post injury.
“When you are coming back from an injury, it is the most difficult phase for any athlete. This period was tough for me. I am happy to have won a medal at the World Championships but there is also a bit of disappointment that I could have done better,” Bajrang said.
His campaign in Belgrade did not get off to a good start. A head clash in his opening round against Cuban Alejandro Enrique Valdes Tobier left him bleeding. The bout was stopped and Bajrang had to be bandaged. Though he managed to edge past Valdes 5-4, the injury impacted his performance in the quarter-final against American Yianni Diakomihalis as he lost 0-10.
“There were just 15-20 minutes between my first bout and the quarter-final and it went in changing the bandage. The earlier tape was very tight. It bled more. I just didn’t have the time to regroup,” said the two-time Commonwealth Games champion.
After Yianni made the final, Bajrang got another chance in repechage the next day. “I was attacking even in my first bout but the head injury just threw me off track in the quarters. I trailed in my repechage bouts but I knew I can cover it, the way I have always done. I know how to make a comeback,” he said.
Bajrang’s leg was easy pickings for the opponents, an area he needed to work on.
“I have to work on my defence and also some other aspects. But I realised my power, stamina and attacks are still there. I could cover points only because my attack and speed were good. After the Olympics, the knee injury was hampering movement on the mat. In Belgrade, I was moving well and that gave me the confidence to go all out. But I need to train and improve on my leg defence,” said the Olympic bronze medallist.
Bajrang will need a lot of spunk going forward with the 65kg category throwing new champions. Iran’s 20-year-old Amouzadkhalili became the new world champion beating 23-year-old Yianni in a thrilling final. Bajrang feels he can stand up to the new generation.
“In this category, it has always been very tough. I would have performed better against Yianni, not saying I would have beaten him, but definitely done far better had it not been for the gash. I played Amouzadkhalili at the Asian meet and it was a close final (1-3). If you compare it to his bouts in Belgrade, nobody had come so close. So, I am not behind them. It is just about who performs well on that particular day,” concluded Bajrang.